CityWatch: Who needs internal combustion? Racers start their E-engines in Brooklyn

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When it comes to live auto racing, the New York City area is mostly a story of dry spells and false starts, unless you count the fast-and-furious drag-racing maniacs in Inwood, Sheepshead Bay or the North Bronx.

The 1937 Vanderbilt Cup was held in Westbury, Long Island. The Meadowlands Grand Prix brought open-wheel Indy cars to East Rutherford, New Jersey, from 1984 to 1991. And in the early 2000s, NASCAR tried—and failed—to win City Hall approval for a 4/5-mile short track at a toxic-dump site near the Goethals Bridge on Staten Island. But until the E-cars roared into Brooklyn, that was pretty much it. 

And now, it’s race time again in New York City with a green, new-tech twist aimed in the direction automobile manufacturers are heading anyway.

All-electric cars. 

Add two-dozen highly competitive drivers from around the world. Map a 14-turn, 1.44-mile street circuit outside the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook with the lower Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. Lure a bunch of corporate sponsors eager to show how environmentally friendly they are. Now, you’ve got the New York stop on the 2021 ABB FIA Formula E-Championship, better known as the New York City E-Prix. It’s two days of “close-combat, wheel-to-wheel all-electric racing,” to quote the hype material, this Saturday and Sunday in a city better known for its paralyzing gridlock.

And someone had to bring it here, dodging COVID-19 and the usual New York bureaucratic nightmares, not to mention the city’s Byzantine alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules. At the moment, that would be Formula-E co-founder Alberto Longo.

Longo and an old friend, Alejandro Agag, took an idea sketched on a napkin at a Paris restaurant in 2011 and turned it into Formula E Holdings, the London-based producer of single-seater electric car races in major urban centers. 

“For us, racing in the heart of the biggest cities in the world is paramount,” Longo said as he tended to a thousand last-minute, pre-race details. “New York is a tier-one market for the globality of the championship. We had to be here.”

Formula-E co-founder Alberto Longo with race car driver Lucas di Grassi in 2018.

Sam Bagnall/Formula E

Their first New York race was in 2017. They missed last year because of the pandemic. But being back in the city isn’t nearly as challenging as Longo expected, he said. Compared to recent tour stops in Mexico, Monaco, Spain, Italy and Saudi Arabia, New York is wide open again. “The restaurants are open. People are on the streets. It’s a big change from what we have been experiencing. It was a challenge to get here, moving 1,000 people from point A to point B. As we speak, it is forbidden to come from Europe to the U.S. unless you have a waiver. But now that we are here, New York is very easy.”

New York, easy?

“I will show to you the hundreds of pages we needed to submit in order to get a permit to do the race,” he said. “But the New York Police and the other authorities have been extremely cooperative. We’re hiring a lot of local contractors and businesses. In this season, we have over 12,000 hotel room nights. Red Hook Lobsters is doing part of the catering. We love Jam-it Bistro.”

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Too bad the drivers and crews won’t get the full New York experience. Despite the city’s low infection rate, they are still being quarantined.

“For one main reason,” Longo said. “We have an event in 15 days in Barcelona. In another 15 days, we have the season finale in Berlin. We need to protect the ecosystem. Any infection, and the contact tracing could be a problem for everyone.”

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Electric-car racing has exploded just as electric-car technology has and electric-powered vehicles are becoming a real factor in consumer auto sales.

“We are promoting electro-mobility,” Longo said, “and, frankly, I think the manufacturers have been a bit surprised. We have nine different manufacturers in the championship this year. Nine! Where else has that happened in the history of motor sports? After five years of history, we have nine. Our platform is aligned with the economic interests of the big manufacturers for the future. They believe that in 10, 15, 20 years time, there will be more electric cars sold than combustion-engine cars. That’s a reality. We can like it. We can not like it. But the world is there. Many of the world’s big governments have banned the sale of combustion-engine cars from 2025, 2030 or 2035. By 2040, we can say we will see very combustion-engine cars in our world.”

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So, with an 80,000-seat grandstand, is New York a secret racing town? “We’re getting there,” Longo said. ‘I think there is passion in New York for almost anything. Hopefully, we can stay here for many, many more years.”

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.